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Topsfield Fair is returning, giant pumpkins and all

Future exhibitor Tray Lotus-Rickards attended a 4-H Essex County Kids Club meeting to get some tips from members who are busy preparing their goats to show at the Topsfield Fair.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Bring on the giant pumpkins, livestock, midway, concerts, and of course the food: America’s oldest agricultural fair — the Topsfield Fair — is back Oct. 1 through 11.

A celebration of Essex County’s agricultural heritage, the Topsfield Fair typically draws between 400,000 and 475,000 people each year, with millions attending over its two-century history. After being canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic, the fair is returning with a full program of events and attractions.

“Having to cancel last year’s Topsfield Fair due to the COVID-19 pandemic was devastating,” said James O’Brien, general manager of the fair. “We look forward to seeing everyone on the fairgrounds in October.”

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A great deal of planning has gone into making the fair as safe as possible. There will be additional sanitation stations, all areas including the midway will be cleaned each night, and free COVID-19 vaccines will be available to the public throughout the fair. Free masks will be offered to everyone at the doors of fairground buildings, and masks will be required on all shuttles, in the first aid area, and within the vaccination locations.

“For me, going to the fair is like going to Disney World,” said Dan Meader, 59, of Georgetown, who has been attending the fair every year since he “was in single digits.”

”It is a tradition and such an important part of my fall,” he said. “Every time I return, it brings back my first trip to the fair with my family. It was a sensory explosion — it was night, the air was cold, I recall the smells of the different foods, the smells of the vegetables and livestock. I hear the hawkers at the games, the announcements, the music …”

People wait in line for a gobbler sandwich, a dish made of turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, at a stall on the midway at the Topsfield Fair in 2016.Keith Bedford

Family traditions run deep at the fair.

For Amanda Guerino of Danvers, the fair is interwoven with the fabric of her life.

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“Growing up, my fondest memories of my childhood include the fair,” said Guerino. “I thank my grandfather Vito ‘Chick’ Bucco for those memories. He always entered the poultry contests. When I was 5, he entered a chicken under my name, and we won a ribbon and a prize.”

Decades later, Guerino would become Mrs. Essex County 2019 — the official goodwill ambassador of the fair.

“Being the ambassador was really cool, especially connecting with kids. It was like coming full circle. When I was a kid, some families went to Disney, my family went to the fair,” she said. “My favorite photo of me and my parents was taken the day I was crowned. My mother passed away in March. I am so glad she got to see me crowned.”

This photo is of Amanda Guerino, Mrs. Essex County 2019, and Berkeley Shamsai of Boxford. It was taken just after Berkeley and her mother Lisa won a ribbon (3rd place) for the Parent Child Cookie Baking at Topsfield Fair.

Just a few miles from the fairgrounds, the members of the 4-H Essex County Kids Club are busy preparing their goats to show at the fair.

“My husband, Ben, and I are the coleaders of the Kids Club. I grew up in rural New York, but Ben grew up here and in fact belonged to this same 4-H goat club when he was kid,” said Evangeline Adelman of Topsfield.

The Adelmans’ daughter Alaina,15, active in the club for six years, will show her goat Peach in the upcoming fair.

The 22 members of the 4-H Kids Club spend months getting their goats ready for the competitions. Maddie Sachs, 12, of Saugus is entering her goat Winnie for the first time.

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“I am a little nervous about showing,” Sachs admitted while grooming Winnie, “but I have made super friends in 4-H and they are really helpful. So I am excited.”

Evangeline Adelman is helping 22 members of the 4-H Essex County Kids Club get their goats ready to show at the fair.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The most well-known competition at the fair may be the All New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off, yet an array of competitions ranging from farm photography to the hot dog eating contest attract thousands of participants annually hoping to earn a ribbon. There are contests geared specifically to youth like the 4-H livestock, while craft categories and others such as the The Parent/Child Cookie Celebration Contest are popular multigenerational competitions.

Organizing all those entries, judging, and managing the crowds is a monumental task. The fair is open only 11 days, but it takes between 700 and 800 volunteers, many working year-round, to make it happen.

Guerino was a volunteer long before her Mrs. Essex County reign.

“My family has been volunteers for as long as I can remember,” she said. “There is a camaraderie among the volunteers. We all have a passion for the fair. It is like working on a project with 300 or so of your best friends.”

Woody Lancaster of Topsfield is lifted into the air by his son Alan, after his Atlantic Giant Pumpkin won the New England Giant Pumpkin Growers Association's Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off at the Topsfield Fair in 2017.Craig F. Walker

Topsfield’s Woody Lancaster has been a volunteer for about 20 years and is a hometown favorite competitor at the Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off that always kicks off the fair.

“There is a mystique about giant pumpkins,” said Lancaster, who serves as cochair of the Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off event.

“I love the great pumpkin competition. There really is a close friendship between most of the competitors. We all know and even cheer for each other,” said Lancaster, who took the first place honor in 2017 with a 2,003.5-pound pumpkin.

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Despite the friendships, the pumpkin growers take their competition very seriously.

“Growing a giant pumpkin is a full-time commitment,” explained Lancaster. “You need to spend two hours a day per plant, you can expect to spend up to $1,000 year on the ‘hobby,’ you can’t take a vacation, and it is important to have a strategy for harvesting and transporting — probably a flatbed truck at the very last possible minute.”

“I had withdrawal last year when the fair was canceled,” said Meader, who is always present on opening day for the Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off and then at least two more days, including the final day for the Demolition Derby.

“I especially missed the food,” he said. “I always look forward to my smoked turkey leg, caramel apple with coconut, cider doughnuts, and of course Learned’s Apple Crisp with ice cream — it’s the best. I even contacted Learned’s last fall to see if I could buy a tray of apple crisp, but they decided to take the year off.”

Learned's Apple Crisp is a longtime favorite at the Topsfield Fair. Learned Apple Pie

Guerino, who is the volunteer chairwoman of the fine arts department, is excited for the fair to return this year.

“Anyone that knows me, knows I love the fair and that is where I will be every day it is open,” she said. “I always take my vacation time to be at the fair.”

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Her husband, Steven, appreciates Guerino’s commitment to the Topsfield Fair so much, that he proposed to her during the fair in 2013.

“I was so surprised, but how could I say no when he asked at the fair!” she said..

A full schedule of fair events and ticket information is available at TopsfieldFair.org.

Linda Greenstein can be reached at greensteinlm@gmail.com.

Volunteers prep a pumpkin to be weighed at the New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off at the Topsfield Fair in 2018.Michael Swensen for The Boston Globe